Authors: Michelle Robbins
"We can get you a wheelchair, sir," said a woman's voice.
Zachary Roberson glanced toward the front of the plane and saw the pretty blonde and handsome redhead frowning at him with concern. Sure, his progress up the aisle wasn't graceful, but he managed.
A wheelchair. For fuck's sake, what next?
But hard-learned manners pressed him to offer a milder answer. "No, ma'am, I'm fine."
He continued his halting progress between the seats toward the airplane's forward exit, despite the doubtful looks of the cabin attendants. They had a right to be concerned, he reminded himself. Lawyers and lawsuits populated this world, unlike the one he'd left behind. Here, conflicts were handled with suits instead of sidearms. "Issues" they were called, not problems. Things were "challenged," not busted.
Welcome home, Marine.
The attendants looked uncomfortable under his regard. He'd probably looked at them too long or too aggressively, thereby violating some unspoken social rule.
He shoved away the urge to snarl and forced a smile onto his face.
See me smile? Nothing to worry about.
"I need to work out the stiffness anyway," he said, as he gave a wink that set the man-child to blushing. He'd aimed it toward the woman, but whatever. No judgment. "Three plus hours in the seat did it no good."
"I'm so sorry," the woman said, her expression filled with compassion. "Car accident?"
"Battlefield injury." He didn't offer any further details. She probably didn't want to hear them anyway. He'd managed to reach the exit. Glancing behind him, he offered a wave of thanks.
Both of the attendants continued to appear uncomfortable. They'd flinched from the bad guess, as well as his stare, but how could he blame them? The war was half a world and an entire awareness away from them. Not for him, though. It lay in his nightly dreams and rose with the sun, and especially every time he looked at--or exercised--his damned leg.
They returned his wave and offered twin, exceedingly professional smiles.
"Thank you for flying Zephyr Airlines," said the redhead.
Zach nodded and turned away to head up the jetway. A uniformed attendant with a wheelchair stood at the entrance, staring at him expectantly. He waved it away and bit down on the urge to snarl.
Not that much of a gimp!
The jaunt from Chicago to Portland had rendered him stiff and sore, nothing more than that. He was on the mend. It'd been two months without the brace and the damned doctors--
Two brunette girls, about six-years old, raced up to him. Zach flinched, a flare of panic moving through him like a hot wave. They stopped short before crashing into him and gawked, bright eyes full of wonder instead of hate. They smiled with an adorable display of dimples and baby teeth.
He discovered that he could breathe again.
Effing cute kids.
A man, probably Pops, swooped over and urged the imps back toward the seats, leaving him to push through the crowd and head toward Baggage Gate 7B.
The progress to the baggage claim area was long and painful, which he knew it would be. His knee, pulled out of alignment from the still-healing angle of his repaired ankle, protested the exercise early on, but it would've been a helluva lot more painful to limp across the airport in the brace. So, he made ample use of the horizontal escalators--called people movers he'd learned when he'd visited Disneyland as a child--and the many elevators.
He'd just stepped off the final down elevator when his cell rang. The chance to rest was welcome, so he came to a stop and pulled his phone from his lightweight jacket pocket. The screen displayed Jeremy's number.
"Yeah?" he said.
"I'm at baggage claim," said his brother. "Alone now. Where are you?"
Zach looked up and over, reading the signs and making a quick reconnaissance of the area. His goal was not far, he noted. Windows everywhere, he also noted, filled with the hazy light from the rain-dimmed streetlamps. The rain wouldn't hamper a sniper, not with current equipment found on the battlefield. In fact, a sniper could be anywhere in the--
Get a grip, Roberson.
His paunchy, balding brother stood beside one baggage pick-up carousel. A single duffle bag bounced along the conveyor behind him. His probably. "I can see you. Is that my duffel coming at you?"
"I think so."
"Grab it. I'll be right there."
"Okay..." The sound of a grunt came through the phone. Zach watched his brother struggle with the bag's weight. "Got it."
His leg felt as though hot knives had sliced through it. Still, it was time to go. He elbowed himself away from the wall that had doubled as his rest stop just as Jeremy's voice returned to the line.
"Did something happen? Why are you the last one off the plane?"
Because my fucking leg barely works, jackass.
He bit off the comment. He would not whine about his situation. "Small hold-up," he answered instead. "I handled it."
He thumbed off the phone and shoved it back into his pocket. Jeremy had spotted him by the time he had crossed the floor to the gate. Zach ground his teeth as the feeling of being watched grated across his nerves. His brother. Not snipers.
"Damn," said Jeremy when they came together, probably in reaction to the limp.
He brushed aside his brother's concern. "Stiff from the plane. Turbulent air kept us in the seats from Montana to Portland. I'll be fine once I stretch out." And by "stretch out" he meant about an hour's worth of painful physical therapy, but Jeremy didn't need to know that.
Zach checked the tag, even though his name marched across the scuffed and well-used olive green bag. Yep, it was his. He grabbed it from the floor and threw it over his shoulder, the strap tightening as the duffel's weight thumped against his back.
His leg gave a silent scream of agony.
He stumbled from the savage bite and instinctively grabbed his brother's arm for support.
"Easy there," said Jeremy, as they both caught their balance, his brother lending his weight to the goal of keeping them upright.
Zach struggled against the radiating pain flashing along his right leg like streaks of lightning. He eased back onto his other foot, giving his injured one a break from the weight. "Fucking careless of me," he muttered.
"That bag's heavy," said Jeremy.
Zach eyed his brother's waist. It looked like it had seen more doughnuts than sit-ups for a long time. Heavy? Maybe if Jer would get off his--
No. Don't take it out on him.
"My leg's the problem, not my duffel. Let's go."
"What happened?" Jeremy asked, as they set out toward the exit signs. "I mean, you mentioned the artillery attack..."
"Some buddies and me were playing poker inside the motor pool when the shelling hit. I dove for cover behind a line of MRAP-ATVs and--"
"Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle." Then Zach continued his explanation. "All good until an avalanche of fire and shrapnel rained down on me. The shit tore into my muscles and tendons of my leg, but the ankle took the most damage. It's held together by screws, tape, and glue." It wasn't really, but the description made his point.
He was lucky. Had the force of an explosion had tipped an MRAP over him instead of away from him, he would have been flattened. Those fuckers weighed about thirty tons. Better to be inside them than beside them when something went
at your feet.
"Damn, Zach, I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I lived through it. Others didn't."
They walked in silence. Jeremy puffed alongside him, even at this slow, hobbling pace. He told himself to include Dough Boy beside him on his daily walks around the neighborhood before Jeremy died from a heart attack or a stroke. They both needed the exercise.
"Wait," said Jeremy and pulled them to a stop. "I need to buy tickets." He approached a machine and fed his card into it. "I should've brought the car," he said, while pushing buttons, "but I came on the train. I didn't think it through. Is the train going to be okay?"
Is there really a choice?
"Sitting in a car or sitting on a train. Same thing. My ass in a seat."
They located the terminus and a waiting train. Jeremy insisted on the handicapped section. Once Zach was able to get off his leg and stretch it out, he found he didn't mind the choice. Fellow train passengers, seeing the two of them seated in the handicapped section and looking hale and hardy, gave them frowns. Jeremy frowned back. Zach forced himself to his feet when a young mother, accompanied by two toddlers and a baby in a stroller, wheeled into the section. She took the offered seat and smiled her appreciation.
Zach nodded, said, "Ma'am," and turned to a trio of teenagers who'd slipped into a seat in the handicapped section behind the young mother. Oozing entitlement, they commandeered the area with their loud laughter, offensive language, and blaring music. The sleeping baby stirred restlessly in the stroller, her dreams disturbed.
Mother attempted to sooth the baby.
The teenagers laughed louder.
Zach narrowed his eyes at the teens, the steel-hard regard encouraging them to relocate.
They did, moving away from the silent warning with satisfying speed.
The baby sighed and quieted. The tiny rosebud mouth pursed like a kiss and worked briefly as she sucked on an imagined treat.
Zach took the seat vacated by the teenagers and forced himself to relax. He closed his eyes and massaged his throbbing knee. After a brief wait and a shuffle of closing doors, an automated recording in English and Spanish began to play and the light rail train headed down the tracks.
It didn't take long for Jeremy's curiosity to rise. Turning in his seat, he asked, "I know what you've told me in your letters and phone calls, but what really did you do in Afghanistan?"
The ghoulish glee in Jeremy's tone aggravated Zach's nerves, but it wasn't the first time he'd encountered it. Folks spent their time playing war on video games and watching 3-D movies. What did they really know about the blood, the pain, and the terror?
"I'm a Marine assigned to a forward operating base in a combat zone. I work outside the wire. My job is to spill blood and break things."
His attempted polite tone failed miserably, causing silence to fall between them for a total of four stops. Inside the train, tired kids whined and scuffled. Chatty voices filled the air. The ever-repeating recording of instructions became annoying.
"I'm...I'm sorry," Jeremy finally offered.
"No worries, Jer," said Zach, with a shrug. What did he expect? Civilians never wanted to know the ugly realities of war, but who could blame them? He had made a choice to leave the bubble of blissful ignorance; they hadn't. "I'm grateful for the room and board. Otherwise, I'd still be bunking at Fort Fucked-Up until the Physical Evaluation Board...the PEB...considers my case."
"You're my brother. Of course you're welcome at my house."
An amusing memory tickled Zach. He glanced at Jeremy. "Right alongside your slave?"
Jeremy's gaze slid away, causing Zach to bite off his laughter.
"That didn't work out," he admitted with a frown. "It ended three months ago."
"Trouble in paradise?"
"Financial trouble. Access to my bank accounts."
"Ouch," said Zach.
There wasn't much else to say to that, so he closed his eyes again. The train filled with people, civilians all, and rumbled its way through a rain-soaked Portland.